The rare works of 'the man who didn’t want to be seen' are finally on display, writes Christabel Milbanke.
From the 30th of September to October the 13th 2016 the Hoxton Gallery will be showing a selection of previously unseen oil paintings by the Keith Cunningham, who died aged 85 in 2014.
A student at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1950s, where his contemporaries were Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, Cunningham was seen as an artist of great promise. After his graduation his work was shown at the Beaux Arts Gallery, as part of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, as well as with the prestigious London Group for two consecutive years. Despite this initial success, in 1960 Cunningham made the decision to withdraw completely from the art scene, declining all offers to exhibit his work for the rest of his life.
The exhibition, which is co-curated by his widow Bobby Hillson and Stephen Rothholz, will show a selection of his darkly powerful paintings of ‘Heads’ and ‘Skulls’, alongside two depictions of dogs, that were painted during this important period in British art, 1954-1960.
Born in Sydney in 1929, Cunningham thrust himself into the world of graphic design after leaving school at the age of fifteen. As Hillson explains: ‘He walked into the art department of David Jones with drawings he had and asked if they’d give him a job. And they did, and that was how it all started! He just walked out. He didn’t get on with his father, but remained in touch with his mother.’ It was this temperament and habit of walking in and out of establishments that would alter the course of his life.
While working in the advertisement department at David Jones he met an Australian designer called Gordon Andrews who lent him books on design and encouraged him with his work. One specific book on Bauhaus almost led to him to going to Chicago to study. But instead, at twenty years old he travelled by ship 10,000 miles to London, his mind made up to pursue fine art.
Despite managing to secure a place at The Central School of Art and Design (which would later amalgamate to become Central St Martin’s) again after simply walking in and presenting his work, Cunningham was left feeling disappointed. Perhaps he was jaded after the five years he spent working in the real world, to short deadlines and specific briefs. ‘He had been practicing as a graphic designer and was expected to turn out work within a few hours,’ says Hillson, ‘but The Central School would give him projects with deadlines of something like three weeks, so he was bored!’
Fate would have it that Andrews would also make the journey from Australia to London to join the Design Research Unit, headed by Sir Micha Black. In need of an assistant to work on high-profile projects such as the Festival of Britain at the Science Museum, Cunningham was eager to help. ‘Of course he was saved by his mentor coming over from Australia,’ says Hillson, ‘so then he was occupied as working as his assistant as well as studying at The Central School, and was happy to be doing lots of work.’
It was not until Cunningham enrolled at the Royal College of Art to study Fine Art, however, that he really came into his own. ‘It worked when he went to the Royal College,’ Hillson continues. ‘He always made things work for himself. But he really wanted to study and he wanted to be a painter, there’s no doubt about that.’
Joining in the same year as Frank Auerbach, who remembers him as ‘always a bit quiet and mysterious’ though with ‘outstanding talent’, he also counted Leon Kossoff, Joe Tilson and David Methuen-Campbell among his friends and peers.
In a letter, Auerbach remembers Cunningham’s irreverent attitude towards the art establishment: ‘We entered the Royal College of Art at the same time in 1952. At the end of the first year there was a sort of examinations and six students were weeded out. Six paintings were required, but Keith entered some drawings of donkeys with human feet and a very thickly painted bearded figure (possibly an apostle or prophet) raising a hand and levitating. When asked where his six paintings were, he said they were under the thickly painted prophet. The college staff (very sensibly) kept him on.’
His paintings impressed the Royal Academicians, seizing the attention of Sir Roger de Gray RA, Carol Weight RA and painter and teacher John Minton who said Cunningham was ‘one of the most gifted painters to have been at the Royal College.’ He graduated with a first and won a travel scholarship to explore Spain. The artwork he was exposed to in the Prado museum, Hillson tells me, made a significant impact upon his art, especially the paintings she chose for the exhibition. ‘The Spanish travelling scholarship, I think, influenced him,’ she says ‘there is this a sort of somber thing about his paintings. A lot of black, red and darkness. They reflected the times, where a lot of painters of the period painted dark.’ At this time Hillson was also on the verge of great things and was hired to work as a fashion illustrator for Vogue magazine, ‘I was interested in what he was doing, he was interested in what I was doing, but we never tried to influence each other at all.’
Upon his return Cunningham exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the Beaux Arts Gallery and later with the prestigious London Group for two consecutive years which resulted in him being asked to submit work to gain full membership to the group. Cunningham declined the offer, and from 1967 onwards he refused to exhibit or even show his artwork to anyone at all - including his wife. ‘Nobody actually knows why he did it,’ says Hillson. ‘He never talked about it. He never talked about his work, which was consistent with the way he lived his life.’
After turning his back on the art world, he went on to forge a successful career in graphic design, working for Design magazine, the Economist and the National Book League. Some of his most recognisable work comes in the form of the book covers of works by writers Marquis De Sade, Anais Nin and Herman Hesse among others. He also taught two days a week at the London College of Printing, with many of his students going on to be great successes including ad-man John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
Hegarty has fond memories of his teacher: ‘He was a wonderful teacher and made everybody feel very special. You felt you were the person he came in to teach. It was a lovely quality he had. He didn’t try to own the room. He went around the room and helped the students quietly. He really made you feel like you were the one who was special to him.’
I ask Hegarty if Cunningham taught him anything that he has referred back to throughout his career. ‘He was very much about the idea, and then about how it actually appeared. In a time when people veered away from ideas, and followed the Swiss school who were more about strict rules, and the shape and form of the thing. It’s actually something I am quoted as saying: “Advertising is 80 per cent idea, it’s also 80 per cent execution.” And I suppose without thinking about it, I learned that from Keith. You start with an idea, but how you execute it is fundamentally important.’ I then ask if he remembers him having a private or secretive air about him, as Auerbach suggested, to which he responds: ‘He came across as very contained, he understood himself and he understood what he was about. He was in control.’
Cunningham’s success in graphic design in turn funded his intensely private and most personal passion; his art. He toiled daily in his studio on Lots Road, Chelsea, painting mainly the few subjects he had to hand: human skulls, flayed sheep’s heads, and hanging birds. His process was so personal that he did not like to have a sitter present, preferring to secretly sketch people while on the bus or in cafes. Auerbach recalls this kind of behaviour from the years they studied together. ‘He kept a little room on the Brompton Road, looked into the college to look at the model, then sprinted to his room to paint the model he had seen from memory. After two years, at the final examination he showed the paintings produced in this way. They looked very distinguished to me, full of nervous life. He was awarded an ARCA, with 1st class honours.’
When asked why Cunninghan never exhibited again despite painting daily throughout his life, Hillson replies: ‘One has all sorts of suspicions, that perhaps he was waiting to show it later. Yet whatever it was he kept these paintings.’ I wonder whether in the end Cunningham truly saw himself as an artist or as a graphic designer. ‘He viewed himself as both,’ says Hillson ‘because he could do both. But he was driven, he had quite the passion to paint. His late watercolours were quite beautiful, it was a different period, but he actually always painted…’ Hegarty’s reaction is more bemused. ‘It’s like a double life,’ he says. ‘Why did you paint all these pictures and not want to show them to anybody? I mean, why do it then? It’s really very strange, especially as they are so good. It’s bizarre, but I suppose it adds to the mystery of it! The man who didn’t want to be seen…’
Keith Cunningham: Unseen Paintings 1954 —1960 runs from the 30th of September to the 13th of October 2016, Monday to Saturday 11am - 6pm, at the Hoxton Gallery, 59 Old St, London EC1V 9HX